pious

adjective
pi·ous | \ ˈpī-əs \

Definition of pious 

1a : marked by or showing reverence for deity and devotion to divine worship

b : marked by conspicuous religiosity a hypocrite—a thing all pious words and uncharitable deeds —Charles Reade

2 : sacred or devotional as distinct from the profane or secular : religious a pious opinion

3 : showing loyal reverence for a person or thing : dutiful

4a : marked by sham or hypocrisy

b : marked by self-conscious virtue : virtuous

5 : deserving commendation : worthy a pious effort

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Other words from pious

piously adverb
piousness noun

The Complicated Uses of pious

Pious has a bit of an image problem. From the beginning of its use in the 15th century this Latin descendant has been used to describe those who are simply very religious—that is, who are deeply devoted to their religion—but it has for centuries also described those who make a show of their religiousness and use it to assert their superiority. We see both in literature:

She sent for a minister, too, a serious, pious, good man, and applied herself with such earnestness, by his assistance, to the work of a sincere repentance, that I believe, and so did the minister too, that she was a true penitent….
— Daniel Defoe, Moll Flanders, 1722

There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve. It is the pious slave-breeder devoting the proceeds of every tenth slave to buy a Sunday's liberty for the rest.
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854

Over the years other meanings have developed too. Pious can be used positively to describe those who are dutiful or virtuous, or things that are worthy. And it can be used negatively to describe hypocrisy. It is also used neutrally to distinguish what is religious from what is nonreligious in content, as in this humorous excerpt from Emily Brontë's 1847 Wuthering Heights:

Joseph was an elderly, nay, an old man—very old, perhaps, though hale and sinewy. "The Lord help us!" he soliloquized in an undertone of peevish displeasure, while relieving me of my horse, looking, meantime, in my face so sourly that I charitably conjectured he must have need of divine aid to digest his dinner, and his pious ejaculation had no reference to my unexpected advent.

Because the word is about religion and religiousness, many associate pious with the Bible. It is, however, wholly absent from many translations of the Bible, probably because of its ambiguous meaning. Pious is, though, included in The New Revised Standard Version and the paraphrasing Living Bible, among a number of others:

The blessing of the Lord is the reward of the pious, and quickly God causes his blessing to flourish.
— Sirach 11:22, New Revised Standard Version

You try to look like saintly men, but underneath those pious robes of yours are hearts besmirched with every sort of hypocrisy and sin.
— Matthew 23:28, The Living Bible

Piety, which most often refers to simple religious devotion, doesn't have the same problem, and is more widely used in biblical translations.

Examples of pious in a Sentence

We must ask to what extent, and at however unconscious a level, a conflict arises in the pious political mind when it is sworn to uphold the civil religion of the Constitution. —E. L. Doctorow, Free Inquiry, October/November 2008 But our problem is the lack of any shared or coherent attitude toward the rest of the world, without which, as Judt acknowledges, Europe exists in pieces, an outsize Switzerland held together by nothing more solid than pious sentiment. —Nicholas Fraser, Harper's, May 2006 The other side of the masonry block was covered with a web of ancient graffiti, she said, left by pious visitors to the tomb. —Tom Mueller, Atlantic, October 2003 The news offered so many occasions for pious or ribald commentary that any chance of agreement about what any of it meant was lost in a vast din of clucking and sniggering. —Lewis H. Lapham, Harper's, August 1997 Japanese schools have another eccentricity, which is the pious, Sunday-school-like enthusiasm of students and teachers alike for education about values. Teachers sometimes sound so saccharine that they would make Mr. Rogers look like a cynic. —Nicholas D. Kristof, New York Times Magazine, 17 Aug. 1997 They lived a quiet, pious life. I'm tired of hearing politicians making pious pronouncements about their devotion to the people.
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Recent Examples on the Web

Mindful of how the old military regime persecuted the pious, Japan’s police long treated religious groups with kid gloves. The Economist, "On the hanging of Shoko Asahara, Japan’s nerve-gas guru," 12 July 2018 For Smith, Tebow was a dud—a nice and commendably pious dud, but a dud all the same—who could barely throw a spiral and would never make a lasting N.F.L. starter. Vinson Cunningham, The New Yorker, "Stephen A. Smith Won’t Stop Talking," 16 June 2018 It is haunted by ghosts, even if its more pious residents wouldn’t put it that way. Alissa Wilkinson, Vox, "What two fictional Gileads can teach us about America in 2018," 12 July 2018 Mark Lewis Jones plays Thomas Griffiths, a gruff vulgarian partnered with the pious Thomas Howell (Michael Jibson) at Smalls Lighthouse, about 20 miles off the coast. Noel Murray, latimes.com, "Review: Actors make the most of seaside suspense in Welsh two-hander 'The Lighthouse'," 5 July 2018 The most powerful leader since the Turkish republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Erdogan remains popular in Turkey’s conservative and pious heartland. Suzan Fraser, BostonGlobe.com, "Turkey’s Erdogan seeks new term with greater powers," 21 June 2018 Fans uploaded blurry videos of the pious pair, who also attended church together during a trip to Miami earlier this month. Jordan Runtagh, PEOPLE.com, "Steamy! Justin Bieber and Hailey Baldwin Hit Washington State for Church and a Hot Tub Session," 27 June 2018 Dovid feels the same pressure to be devout, to serve as a pious example to the community. Gary Thompson, Philly.com, "'Disobedience': A lesbian affair in an ultra Orthodox community | Movie review," 10 May 2018 Secular Tel Aviv has long billed itself as a gay tourism hub, although in Jerusalem, an hour’s drive away, pious Jews, Muslims and Christians set a more straightlaced public tone. NBC News, "Tel Aviv pride parade draws 250,000 Israelis, foreigners," 8 June 2018

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'pious.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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First Known Use of pious

15th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1a

History and Etymology for pious

Middle English, from Latin pius

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Phrases Related to pious

pious hope/wish

Statistics for pious

Last Updated

31 Aug 2018

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Time Traveler for pious

The first known use of pious was in the 15th century

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More Definitions for pious

pious

adjective

English Language Learners Definition of pious

: deeply religious : devoted to a particular religion

: falsely appearing to be good or moral

pious

adjective
pi·ous | \ ˈpī-əs \

Kids Definition of pious

: showing devotion to God

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